You have carefully designed your research project, read everything that there is to read, collected your data, are quietly satisfied with your findings. But there is still one more important task, one that is dreaded by many PhD researchers – you have to write everything up. The brilliance of your research will count for nothing unless you can communicate effectively with your intended readers. The ‘writing-up’ phase of the PhD means that for about a year you will become a full-time writer. How can you manage this sudden change of roles? What kinds of support are available to you?
When I am writing a long text, I often turn to advice given by professional writers. What is striking is that they all seem to have a set routine – a preferred time of day when they write best, a favourite desk, a preferred way of engaging with a blank screen or piece of paper. The novelist Vladimir Nabukov used to write at a lectern standing up because it reminded him of the days when he used to deliver lectures to his clever postgraduate students. William Boyd always writes a first draft text in longhand with the same pen sitting at the same desk for three hours each day. Other stories can be found at: http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/
A daily writing schedule (rather than a monthly plan) will help provide some much-needed structure for your writing. You need to set yourself small writing targets each day. You may fail to reach your target, but at least having some kind of plan will bring a sense of order to your writing and to your work-life balance. As far as possible you need to stick to your preferred schedule, but this does not mean forcing yourself to write if you feel blocked.
A common misconception that often causes problems for research writers is that writing is essentially an isolated activity in which you lock yourself in a room, chain yourself to a desk and keep going until words appear on the page. In fact, effective writing will usually involve other people. To gain a sense of perspective and to motivate yourself, you will need regular feedback – not just from supervisors but from other readers, colleagues, even family members and friends. Sometimes you just need to show a piece of text to someone and ask: “Does this make sense?” or “Can you see the point that I am trying to make?”
A final consideration is that writing is a process that needs to be rationalized. You need to think it through and record your thinking, the reason being that your thinking might well change in the course of a year. Many researchers keep writing journals or blogs in order to achieve this. I have decided to follow their example. I now have my own blog: this is it.
This is a project that is just beginning but one that I hope to expand in the coming weeks and months. Come and join me on this website so that we can discuss some of the writing-related problems that researchers experience and find suitable solutions. Add your comments and your questions to the new posts that appear and to the regular pages organized by themes. Sharing your experience may also be of great help to others in the future. Or if you prefer, start your own blog and begin to reflect on the writing process and receive feedback from others who are in a similar position.
Desmond Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org )